Monday, January 29, 2007

What Does a "Dream of God" Look like

By Ralph Webb
The Institute on Religion & Democracy

In her investiture sermon, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori spoke of what she called the "dream of God" and equated it with her "vision of shalom." She described it as the "homecoming" of all human beings to a place of peace with God and, even more, the restoration of the entire created order to that "shalom." The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals are the vehicle through which The Episcopal Church (TEC) can play its part in fulfilling this "dream." In the end, there will be "a world where no one goes hungry … no one is sick or in prison … no one enjoys abundance at the expense of the other … all enjoy Sabbath rest in the conscious presence of God."

The "dream of God" imagery may have constituted a tribute on Bishop Jefferts Schori's part to the late Dr. Verna J. Dozier, an Episcopal layperson, teacher, and author. Dozier's most popular book, The Dream of God: A Call to Return, has greatly influenced many progressives. Episcopal clergy such as the Rev. Ed Bacon, Bishop Michael Curry, and the Rev. Susan Russell, as well as progressive Christian authors such as Marcus Borg, have referenced this "dream of God" metaphor.1 The book often is used for discussion groups in progressive parishes.

Verna Dozier was disheartened by The Episcopal Church (TEC), feeling "that [its] religious leaders too often ignore social justice to focus instead on spirituality." Consequently, she urged fellow members of the laity to follow Christ through activism for progressive causes. She asked them "to witness … that there is another possibility for human life than the way of exploitation and domination." She also criticized the church for what was in her mind too great a focus on worshipping Christ: "Jesus did not call human beings to worship him, but to follow him."

Her sense of dichotomy between serving and worshipping Christ led her to teach her students to question their faith, the Scriptures, the church as an institution, and religious leaders. She argued that fear, not doubt, is the opposite of faith. She also contended that faith is demonstrated primarily through action rather than belief. "Don't just tell me what you believe; tell me what difference it makes that you believe" is a saying of hers cited frequently by progressives.

Dozier's major arguments are reflected in Bishop Jefferts Schori's thinking. In her investiture sermon, the new Presiding Bishop identified fear as one of two reasons that would keep Christians from pursuing her "vision of shalom." (The other reason was apathy.) And in her first homily after being elected Presiding Bishop last June, she raised this question as her central focus: "Can we dream of a world where all creatures, human and not, can meet each other in a stance that is not tinged with fear?"

In the same sermon, Bishop Jefferts Schori talked of "lay[ing] down [this] fear" by letting go of any "idolatrous self interest"—including, potentially, one's "theological framework." The goal of this abandonment is to "love the world"; Christians should relinquish their "narrow self-interest, and heal the hurting and fill the hungry and set the prisoners free." Nearly five months later in her investiture sermon, she identified the church's mission with loving others: "The health of our neighbors, in its broadest understanding, is the mission that God has given us."

What's significant here is that the bishop uses theology as an example of an idol while not doing the same for social justice. She clearly did not mean in her June sermon that a "theological framework" is always a source of idolatry. Nonetheless, she did not cite "lov[ing] the world" as a potential idol even though it can be one. There are times when people help others to boost their own prestige rather than out of altruism. There are also times when people place so much stock in their service to humanity that their good deeds become a god to them.

This comparative distrust of theology meshes well with Verna Dozier's thought. When asked in the progressive publication The Witness about her feelings on orthodox Christian beliefs, Dozier replied that "The insistence on one position is a frightened position. If you were not threatened by another reality you wouldn't have to be so strong on yours." From this perspective, fear is the reason why many Christians hold classical Christian beliefs (e.g., salvation through Christ alone, a belief that Bishop Jefferts Schori denies). Clearly, Bishop Jefferts Schori agrees at least partially with this sentiment.

Dozier also speculated in The Witness that concern for "right belief" is "a manifestation of the drive for power that's in all of us, all the time. I can control you if I can set up the possibility that there is only one position and I hold it."2 Correspondingly, in her essay "Lab Report" from her forthcoming book A Wing and a Prayer, Bishop Jefferts Schori contends that "the great sin of the church … [is] the desire to be right."3

The one-sided warnings say much about the greater weight that Bishop Jefferts Schori gives to social justice than theology—or even worship. She told The Living Church that Christians should reach out to their neighbors by "[s]how[ing] God's love through action. Add formal worship as needed." Bishop Jefferts Schori may not see the same dichotomy between following Christ and worshipping Christ that Verna Dozier did. Still, "formal worship" evidently is lower on the priority scale for the new Presiding Bishop than social justice.

Regardless of whether Bishop Jefferts Schori consciously paid homage to Verna Dozier, she nonetheless affirmed Dozier's central metaphor of the "dream of God" in her investiture sermon. In so doing, she used imagery that would have resonated deeply with many Episcopal progressives. The new Presiding Bishop asserted that pursuing this "dream of God" should be a "tireless search" for all Christians, who are "prisoners of hope"4 until the "dream" comes to fruition.

Undoubtedly influenced by her background in marine biology, the bishop closed her investiture sermon with an image of every creature joyfully envisioning this "dream": "God has spoken that dream in us, let us rejoice! Let us join the raucous throngs in creation, the sea creatures and the geological features who leap for joy at the vision of all creation restored, restored to proper relationship, to all creation come home at last."

What role does Jesus Christ play in this vision? Bishop Jefferts Schori at one point compares this homecoming to a heavenly banquet of which Jesus is the "inauguration and incarnation." She asserts that God uses Jesus' incarnation, along with Old Testament prophetic writings and stories of the patriarchs, the reflections of mystics, and baptism, to plant the "dream in us." Perhaps most significantly for the bishop, he is also the one who "has made captivity captive, has taken fear hostage … for the liberation and flourishing of hope." In this last quote, Bishop Jefferts Schori alludes to her favorite passage of Scripture, the first few verses of Isaiah 61—the text that she used as the basis for her investiture sermon.

Noticeably absent from her passing references to Christ in the investiture sermon, however, is any mention of his death and resurrection. Also missing is any call to repentance and faith in Christ. Like other progressives, Bishop Jefferts Schori evidently finds more significance in the life that Jesus lived than in his sacrifice for the sins of all humanity and God's vindication of that sacrifice.5

Another writer had a vision of creation's liberation over 2,000 years ago. The apostle Paul saw all creation burdened as a result of the fall of humanity and foresaw a day when "the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God."6 He also saw hope as critical for the Christian, but the hope that he described in the letter to the Romans was one grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. "Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life."7

Paul saw no dichotomy between following and worshipping Jesus Christ, unlike Verna Dozier. For example, the apostle spends several chapters in Romans on practical ways in which his readers can follow Christ. In the middle of this section, Paul speaks of Jesus as Lord and anticipates a day when everyone will "confess" or "praise" (the exact word is disputed, but either one involves worship) Jesus.8 A parallel passage in Paul's letter to the Philippians9 is also explicit in this regard.

And in contrast to Bishop Jefferts Schori, Paul clearly did not believe that a person's "theological framework" is somehow less trustworthy than social action. Many of his writings aim to help Christians build a "theological framework" that affects all aspects of their lives, including both worship and Christian action. Again in his letter to the Romans, Paul spends nearly all of the first 11 chapters describing an elaborate "theological framework" that serves as the basis for, first, worship10, and second, practical instructions.11 The progressive "dream of God," unfortunately, lacks this balance.

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